This bill aims to improve the fairness of the Texas criminal justice system’s response to defendants’ inability to pay fines and fees in criminal cases, particularly in traffic and city ordinance violations. The bill makes a multitude of changes, but broadly speaking, it requires judges to determine a defendant’s ability to pay fines and costs at sentencing, allows judges to waive or reduce fines and fees, and provides for sentencing alternatives when the defendant is unable to pay fines and fees, and it limits arrests and incarceration for inability to pay fines and fees.
- A judge must ask about the defendant’s ability to pay fines & costs before imposing a fine as a sentence.
- If a defendant cannot pay, the judge must offer alternatives like community service, a payment plan, or a waiver (in full or in part) of the amount owed. Traffic citations and other tickets must include information about alternatives to fines and fees available to defendants who are unable to pay.
- When sentencing low-level violations, judges may permit defendants to complete job skills training and GED prep classes instead of community service, and credit individuals at least $12.50/hour towards debt owed.
- If an individual hasn’t paid a fine as ordered, the judge cannot issue a warrant for their arrest before scheduling a hearing where the individual can explain why they haven’t paid.
- If a warrant has been issued for failure to pay fines, an individual should not be arrested if they voluntarily go to court and work out a way to pay or otherwise resolve what they owe.
- If someone is arrested for unpaid fines or failing to appear in court for a low-level violation, the judge can’t hold them in jail simply because they don’t have enough money to post a bail bond.
In November 2018, Texas Rep. Terry Canales announced that SB 1913 resulted in 300,000 fewer arrest warrants (a decline of 37.5% over 11 months), and data released by the Texas Office of Court Administration show that the number of people incarcerated for nonpayment of fines and fees dropped from about 620,000 to about 450,000. Nevertheless, as Texas criminal justice blogger Scott Henson notes, that still means that almost half a million Texans sat out their fines in jail in 2018.